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Folklorist Alan Lomax spent his career documenting folk music traditions from around the world. Now thousands of the songs and interviews he recorded are available for free online, many for the first time. It's part of what Lomax envisioned for the collection — long before the age of the Internet.
Lomax recorded a staggering amount of folk music. He worked from the 1930s to the '90s, and traveled from the Deep South to the mountains of West Virginia, all the way to Europe, the Caribbean and Asia. When it came time to bring all of those hours of sound into the digital era, the people in charge of the Lomax archive weren't quite sure how to tackle the problem.
"We err on the side of doing the maximum amount possible," says Don Fleming, executive director of the Association for Cultural Equity, the nonprofit organization Lomax founded in New York in the '80s. Fleming and a small staff made up mostly of volunteers have digitized and posted some 17,000 sound recordings.
"For the first time, everything that we've digitized of Alan's field recording trips are online, on our website," says Fleming. "It's every take, all the way through. False takes, interviews, music."
"Alan would have been thrilled to death. He would've just been so excited," says Anna Lomax Wood, Lomax's daughter and president of the Association for Cultural Equity. "He would try everything. Alan was a person who looked to all the gambits you could. But the goal was always the same."
Throughout his career, Lomax was always using the latest technology to record folk music in the field and then share it with anyone who was interested. When he started working with his father, John Lomax, in the '30s, that meant recording on metal cylinders. Later, Alan Lomax hauled giant tape recorders powered by car batteries out to backwoods shacks and remote villages.
Lomax wrote and hosted radio and TV shows, and he spent the last 20 years of his career experimenting with computers to create something he called the Global Jukebox. He had big plans for the project. In a 1991 interview with CBS, he said, "The modern computer with all its various gadgets and wonderful electronic facilities now makes it possible to preserve and reinvigorate all the cultural richness of mankind."
He imagined a tool that would integrate thousands of sound recordings, films, videotapes and photographs made by himself and others. He hoped the Global Jukebox would make it easy to compare music across different cultures and continents using a complex analytical system he devised — kind of like Pandora for grad students. But the basic idea was simple: Make it all available to anyone, anywhere in the world.
Lomax was forced to stop working when his health declined in the '90s, and he left the Global Jukebox unfinished. Now that his archives are online, the organization he founded is turning its attention to that job.
The Association for Cultural Equity is housed in a rundown building near the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan. Most of Lomax's original recordings and notes are now stored at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. But Fleming says the New York offices still exude the DIY vibe they had when Lomax was working there — right down to the collection of castoff chairs and desks, none of which seem to match.
"There was never any money in it for Alan," says Fleming. "Alan scraped by the whole time, and left with no money. He did it out of the passion he had for it, and found ways to fund projects that were closest to his heart."
Money is still tight. But that never stopped Alan Lomax, and it hasn't deterred Anna Lomax Wood, either.
"He believed that all cultures should be looked at on an even playing field," she says. "Not that they're all alike. But they should be given the same dignity, or they had the same dignity and worth as any other."
Almost 10 years after his death, his heirs are still trying to make his vision a reality — one recording at a time.